It has been 10 years since the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative (API), in which the leaders of the Arab World asserted that they would recognize and normalize relations with Israel if Israel were to withdraw from the territories occupied in the 1967 war and negotiate with the Palestinians a resolution of their decades-old conflict.
In issuing this API the Arabs made clear that their problem with Israel was not existential, it was a matter of borders, territory, and rights. This should have been seen as a dramatic breakthrough and a potentially transformative moment in the history of the conflict, sadly it was not. Instead, Israel scoffed at the Initiative and dismissed it, while the Bush Administration under-valued its importance.
To be sure, for some in the Arab World, the API was a bitter pill. Historical grievances were real and ran deep. Many could not forget the betrayal they had experienced at the hands of the British and French who had, at the end of World War I, occupied the Arab East, dismembering it, and fostering a Jewish Homeland in the area of Palestine. This betrayal continued throughout the 20th century leading ultimately to the dispossession and dispersal of the Arabs of Palestine in the bitter defeat of 1948.
While the newly declared state of Israel complained that no Arabs would recognize them, the Arabs countered that the core of the problem was the West’s and the Zionist movement’s failure to recognize Palestinian rights. Like other victims of settler colonialism, the Arabs remained steadfast in maintaining the illegitimacy of the new state that had displaced the indigenous people of Palestine. And so the conflict continued and only intensified, in 1967, when Israel occupied the whole of Palestine.
When Palestinian and Israeli negotiators completed the Oslo Accords in 1993, it appeared that at long last a resolution was at hand. By recognizing each other’s national rights (which was the essential breakthrough of Oslo), the ground was prepared for negotiations to establish a two state solution that could once and for all put an end to the conflict.
For many Palestinians Oslo was a difficult step but one they knew they needed to take to normalize their situation, secure the right to establish their own state and rebuild their national community. It was not a perfect outcome and would not, they understood, redress all of their legitimate grievances. But they put their faith in negotiations, believing that the future they could create through the Oslo process would be better than the future they would face through continued conflict.
Ten years later, Israeli settlements in the occupied lands had doubled, Jerusalem had been severed from the rest of the Palestinian lands by massive settlement projects and checkpoints, poverty and unemployment had increased and it had become increasingly clear that Israel had no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state to come into existence or to engage in meaningful negotiations leading to a resolution of other outstanding issues (refugees, borders, etc).
At that point, the second Intifada erupted. Unlike the first intifada, this was an exceptionally violent uprising and it was met with massive oppression. Given this, it is all the more remarkable that in this context the Arab Heads of State gathered in Beirut to issue their peace initiative. It was their hope that by putting themselves on the line and offering the Israelis what they had claimed they most wanted–”peace, recognition and normalcy–”that the promise of the API would provide the incentive needed to restart negotiations leading to peace.
I noted that for some this Initiative had been a bitter pill, but for most Arabs it was a transformative event. I spoke with Rafiq al Hariri a few years after that Beirut Summit and he remarked on how much had changed in intra-Arab discourse since that event. He told me that just a decade earlier it would not have been possible to propose or even discuss peace with Israel, now, he said, majorities across the Arab World openly discussed, supported, and even yearned for this outcome, if only Israel would take the steps needed to make it happen.
Sure enough, when we have polled on the Arab Peace Initiative across the Arab World we now find that almost three-quarters of all Arabs support a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That’s the good news. At the same time, over one-half of all Arabs do not believe that Israel will be willing to take the steps that would allow this outcome to occur. And given Israeli behavior, this negative sentiment is growing.
The need to change this dynamic, to restore hope, and to work for peace is the order of the day. That is why this week, in Washington, the Arab American Institute and J Street, together with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will host an event to mark the 10 year anniversary of the Arab Peace Initiative. There will be naysayers, just as there were 10 years ago when Arab leaders, in the midst of horrific Israeli-Palestinian violence, made their brave decision to stand for peace. We recognize the challenges we face, but know that for there to be peace, there must be a constituency that supports and advocates for peace. And we remain committed to working toward that goal.